Skip to main content

Ambiguous Figures of Desire

Final Report Summary - AFD (Ambiguous Figures of Desire)

Summary overview: "Ambiguous Figures of Desire"
Project acronym AFD. Website:
Sofie Kluge, email / telephone +45 29923932

1. results
During the project period, I have conducted extensive research into the following early modern mythological texts: William Shakespeare's "Venus and Adonis", Luis de Góngora's "Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea", Pedro Soto de Rojas' "Fragmentos de Adonis", Giovan Battista Marino's "Adone", Pedro Calderón de la Barca's "Eco y Narciso", as well as Francisco de Quevedo's Hero and Leander poetry. These individual studies – results of which have been disseminated in five peer reviewed journal articles and two anthology chapters – have enabled me to establish a typology of early modern mythological poetry, placing each of the investigated works on a scale spanning from eroticism to moralism, and, furthermore, to formulate decisive differences such as that between the "polyphonic" mythography of Shakespeare, the "mosaic" mythography of Góngora, the "antithetic" mythography of Soto de Rojas, Marino's "aporetic" mythography, and Calderón's "allegorical" mythography. However, the most important concept developed within the project is "Diglossia", describing the moral-aesthetic two-tonguedness of early modern mythological poets. The total results of the research project have, finally, been incorporated into the monograph "Diglossia. The Early Modern Reinvention of Mythological Discourse" which is presented as my habilitation thesis to the University of Copenhagen and will be published by Edition Reichenberger in September 2014.

2. conclusion
My research has thus shown that ancient myth did not all of a sudden become the innocent carrier of unequivocally positive ‘modern’ meanings around the year 1600. To the contrary, it continued to entail a whole array of problematic connotations such as, notably, paganism, fatality, falseness, and immorality. Seventeenth-century mythological poets did not simply dispose of their historically determined prejudices concerning their material which the period both exalted for its imaginative richness and stigmatized as deceitful and immoral fiction, nonsensical and even damaging lies and errors. As the fundamental ambiguity of their works suggests, whatever their religious observance and no matter the firmity of their personal belief, early modern authors who exploited the poetic inventory of ancient mythology as the basis of their compositions and inventions were intensely aware of the problematic connotations that it carried. This awareness, it is important to emphasize, did not make them either affirmative tools at the hands of moralizing preachers or subversive elements seeking to overthrow authority. Instead, they must be understood as consciously playing with — simultaneously endorsing and challenging — the precarious double bind in which they found themselves when they approached the poetic treasurehouse left them by their ancient predecessors. Even if there are differences in accentuation and emphasis from one author to the next, it may be concluded that generally speaking early modern mythological poetry on one hand adopted an essentially amoral universe but on the other hand submitted this universe to moral censure, on one hand retying mythological poetry to that moral universe of good and bad examples, reward and castigation, which not only religious censors but also contemporary poetic theory considered its main justification; and, on the other hand, mobilizing all the sensual power of myth to question the moral approach to poetry. Through this shrewd double dealing they neither affirmed one nor the other, but created a third position in between or, more precisely, above both: a mediatory, dialogical or dialectical, space where the conflicting views could be expressed and contemplated side by side and which, thus, anticipates modern theories of the "literary" as a medium for reconciling cultural conflicts and expressing controversial issues in a nuanced, un-dogmatic manner.

3. impact
The idea for "Ambiguous Figures of Desire" sprang from a dissatisfaction with current historiographical methods in literary studies which I found to be, generally speaking, too intent on updating historical forms of thinking and writing to modern-day conceptions — the well-known tendency to ask what this or that phenomenon means to us rather than what it means in the first place. The chosen field of erotic-mythological poetry exhibits this problematic tendency quite clearly, since, for some reason, scholars are especially prone to project contemporary conceptions unto literary works of the past when it comes to texts dealing with desire, eroticism, and pleasures of the body. Besides the obvious aim of furthering public and scientific knowledge of an extremely fascinating historical material, my intention with this project was, thus, to debate the way we deal with the past. In accordance with these distinct yet intertwined aims, main impacts of "Ambiguous Figures of Desire" are cultural historical and epistemological. They may be summed up as 1) furthering knowledge of a specific historical topic through a discussion of the multifarious configurations of desire in late Renaissance and Baroque mythological poetry (which historically determined notions of eroticism and the body do we meet in, say, Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis [1593], Góngora’s Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea [1612] or Giovan Battista Marino's Adone [1623]? How did sixteenth- and seventeenth-century authors express their notions of human sexuality? And how may their works contribute to our awareness of the historicity of modern self-understandings, values, and norms?); and 2) heightening historical awareness through a discussion of how and why we approach the cultural heritage of the past (do we preoccupy ourselves with past worlds with a didactic outlook, in order to ‘learn from history’? As a means of forming our own identity, hence in order to recognize the contours of our own image in the unfamiliar? Or perhaps with an innocent curiosity vis-à-vis the unknown and in order to savour it like a thrilling, exotic phenomenon? Or maybe with a critical intention, in order to use history as a way of highlighting modern-day conceptions ex contrariis? – The answer is by no means obvious, and it is important for us historians to try and induce students from primary and secondary schools as well as the universities to reflect sternly on the relations between the past and the present and not simply to generalize contemporary perceptions into universals). Through scientific publications, conference participation, and organization of an academic convention dedicated to the topic at the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters and Antiquities in April 2014, I have publicly raised these questions, aiming to further general knowledge of my topic as well as to debate what may be termed the ethics of (literary) historiography.